Personalized Learning: Where It Came From, Why It Works, And How To Implement It

Bob Nilsson Director, Vertical Solutions Marketing Published 21 Nov 2018


Noah has completed a lesson in his digital math text book and is now working a series of problems. His answer to the first is accepted and he is presented with a second problem that he doesn’t recognize. When he gets the answer wrong, a new explanatory passage appears followed by a slightly different version of the problem. Noah correctly answers this one and moves on to the next question. Later on in the lesson, Noah will be tested on the class of problem he got wrong a moment ago, just to make sure he fully understands it.

For his reading lesson, Mason selects a passage on rock music, one of his favorite topics. When he completes the article, he is presented with an assignment matched to his skill and interest.

Amelia not only tore through her evolutionary biology lesson, but demonstrated that she understood the content by acing all of the end of lesson questions. Wasting no time, she was happy to launch right in to a supplemental biology lesson that will help her with the biology advanced placement test that she is considering taking at the end of the year.

Olivia had struggled with the geometry lesson that she watched last night. Although she had done well up to this point, a key concept of an earlier lesson is now eluding her and the proofs she is working through are not making sense. Olivia’s classroom teacher is made aware of Olivia’s plight and the nature of the problems she is struggling with. In this case, the teacher has some ideas to share with Olivia to help her through these problems. As backup, the teacher’s notebook is aware of Olivia’s struggle and is ready to assist the teacher with supplemental lessons and problems to share.

Judy is sitting in a large classroom surrounded by her classmates, all of whom are 15 minutes into a 110-minute testing session. The first section of the test assesses Judy’s knowledge of language and conventions, and she feels confident that she did well on it. But the second section on written expression has been painful. The class time spent on this material had not been enjoyable and Judy now wishes she hadn’t been texting during those classes. Still, at the time, she thought she understood the content; but now she is unable to answer most of the questions on this portion of the test. Her mind is frozen with the possibility of failing the entire test, and possibly failing English, due to this one section, even though she knows all the other sections cold. 

Noah, Mason, Amelia, and Olivia are participating in examples of different forms of personalized learning. Not all of these styles of learning are appropriate for all students. On the other hand, Judy’s situation, which is still faced by far too many students, is optimal for none.

What is personalized learning?

The term personalized learning has been used to describe everything from evolved teaching skills, enhanced curricula, and simple classroom segmentation, to breakthrough digital technologies delivered in ultra-futuristic learning spaces requiring ground-breaking teacher dexterity. The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), a focal point for the concept, describes personalized learning as:

Tailoring learning to each student’s strengths, needs and interests — including enabling student voice and choice in what, how, when, and where they learn — to provide flexibility and supports to ensure mastery of the highest standards possible. This definition encapsulates all three major elements:

  1. Competency-based progression to insure that students advance at the rate that they master each subject
  2. Personal learning paths, based on background, interests, strengths, motivations
  3. Optimal instruction delivery blending personal student-teacher interaction with online digital content

Contrast this individualized style with factory schooling of the last-century: students aligned in rows, learning the facts and skills of arithmetic, history, and writing. The system filled the needs of the industrial era economy with graduates who could tabulate, record, calculate, schedule, measure, and manage. The theory was one size could fulfill all requirements. The only form of personalization during this era was to hold some students back a year for a repetition of the same content, taught in exactly the same manner each time.



[Industrial era classrooms]

Many of the skills taught in that earlier era are now routinely handled by computers at rates exceeding human capabilities by thousands of times. For example, the AP produces nearly 4,300 earnings articles per quarter without any human intervention. In fact, computers can write 10,000 articles in less than half the time it takes a human reporter to write one.



[The emerging collaborative classroom]


Students in our schools today will be offered careers that do not even exist yet. These new professions will require proficiency in the four Cs (Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Creativity), rather than the three Rs (Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic) of yesterday.

Where did Personalized Learning Come From?

Although there were vestiges of personalized learning as early as the 19th century, the current connotation and usage began about ten years ago. When the term was used in a 2004 speech by David Miliband, Minister of State for School Standards for the United Kingdom, the technology necessary for its implementation was starting to emerge. Educators experimenting with personalized learning were finding that their students became dramatically more engaged. Teachers observed that students with diverse experiences and backgrounds, including but not limited to different economic and cultural circumstances, responded differently to a range of techniques, examples, and styles. A theory developed that the learners’ own contexts, including prior experiences, current interests, and future aspirations could be used to address learning challenges.

The Christensen Institute introduced the concept of blended learning, which incorporates education technology to give students more control over time, place, path, and pace of lessons. As an important side benefit, the technology made it possible to analyze which techniques work best for individual students.

The concepts of personalized learning are equally important for K-12, higher education, and even professional development. Students arriving on the college campus not only have a widely-varying cultural background, but may have different subject mastery that needs be identified and credited.

Personalized Learning, Online Learning, Flipped Learning, and Blended Learning

While personalized learning can be implemented without technology, it is dramatically more effective when combined with digital and adaptive capabilities. Recorded lectures make possible flipped learning, where students view lecture content outside of the classroom, leaving classroom time for personal interaction with the teacher. Segmenting lessons into on-line classes enables students to progress through modules at their own rate. Combining these styles provides a blended learning environment with both online lessons and in-person teacher discussions.

How Do We Know That Personalized Learning Works?

Beyond the intuitive feel that personalized learning makes sense, there is growing quantitative evidence of its effectiveness. A RAND Corporation study of 23 charter schools across the US found significant improvement in math and reading achievement resulting from personalized learning. All groups in the study showed large achievement growth; the group aged 7-8 actually doubled their ranking nationally from the 33% to the 64%.

The Institute of Personalized Learning reported growth in reading and math achievement nearly double what was expected after a pilot of 34 early elementary classrooms incorporated elements of personalized learning into the curriculum. The Christensen Institute has documented a dozen case studies with quantitative benefits attributable to personalized and blended learning. Among these are:

  • District of Columbia Public Schools recorded extensive and well-studied student gains in math and reading on district-wide assessments
  • Mooresville Graded School District was rated number one in North Carolina for meeting the state’s targets for proficiency and other measures after implementing blended learning
  • Washington County School District graduation rate improved from 80% in 2012 to 88% in 2014 with personalized learning

Fraser Public Schools began implementing personalized learning in 2013 and reports “increased participation, lower achievement gaps, increased graduation rates, deeper learning, decreased truancy, increased digital fluency, and a tendency toward lifelong learning”

Let us know your views of personalized learning both pro and con. Please take a moment to complete our short survey on personalized learning practices and you’ll automatically be entered in a raffle to win an iPad mini. We will share the results with you as soon as the survey completes. Whether or not you have direct experience with personalized learning, your responses are important to us. The whole process will take just a few minutes. Please take a brief moment to answer the survey now.

Is There A Downside To Personalized Learning? 

If personalized learning is really the solution to the woes of education, why hasn’t it already been implemented? Aside from the fact that all changes take time, there are indeed obstacles and even some drawbacks. The major hurdles involve resources and training. Schools are typically severely constrained by budget, so programs requiring new resources must be phased in over time.

The demands on the classroom teacher can rise with personalized learning. Whereas in the past a teacher could at least theoretically teach an entire class the same material synchronously, the very point of personalized learning is to individually assist students who are at different stages of understanding the content. Technology provides some assistance, but for success, the teacher must be capable of continually assessing each individual’s understanding of the subjects in order to provide the appropriate coaching toward full comprehension.

What about the risk of students coming to school lacking motivation or even the ability to progress at a steady pace through their subjects? Learning and thinking is often hard. Not everyone will be able to assume the full responsibility demanded by personalized learning. Also, with class members by definition out of synch with each other, do group discussions and debates become impossible?

Since personalized learning increases engagement, student motivation, which is important throughout education, is at least as high as with traditional learning. In some cases, students who demonstrate competency early can be rewarded with free discretionary time, as a powerful motivator. If student does experience a setback or lull in energy, it tends to be easier to spot and correct with personalized learning.

In practice, personalized learning easily incorporates group activities and debates. In fact, the collaborative group project has become an important characteristic of the personalized learning experience.  

What Elements Are Needed For Successful Personalized Learning?

Personalized learning benefits tremendously from digital content. This includes digital text books, video lectures, experiments and field trips. Lecture and video-capture software helps record and organize content presentation. Digital content needs to be presented through student devices, such as eReaders, tablets and notebooks. Usage of Chromebooks with their centralized management, collaborative apps and durability is growing and expected to comprise about half of all student devices in the classroom. New content such as augmented reality and virtual reality require special headsets. A rock-solid Wi-Fi and wired network insures the digital content is delivered as needed.

The next step beyond simple digital media is interactive content that tracks the student’s understanding and either accelerates progress or provides review and supplemental lessons to insure subject competency. This includes adaptive learning technology that assesses student progress through in-line quizzes, by monitoring the student’s path and speed, and by tracking how many hints are offered and accepted.

Emerging applications and software are rapidly advancing the possibilities of personalized learning. Software platforms that incorporate adaptive and competency-based learning systems help relieve some of the new burden from the classroom teacher. Open Educational Resources (OER), such as OER Commons can be a rich source of personalized learning content. Formative assessment software, which can be as simple as Google Forms, can be used to ascertain individual comprehension. Strategic simulation games have come a long way from the now-archaically-droning drill and skill style of the early education game programs. Learning Management Systems (LMS), such as Moodle, Blackboard, and Jenzabar provide individual student tracking.

Traditional classrooms can certainly be used for personalized learning, but some districts are taking the concept further and creating collaborative learning spaces. The ideal environment for personalized learning provides flexibility for students to work together in small groups or individually with a teacher. Walls are extended white boards for drawing and flat panel displays which can be connected to any student or teacher device are distributed around the rooms. Designated classrooms may be turned into makerspaces or creative areas for tinkering and building may be distributed throughout your schoolsSee our round-up blog for more on educational technology products for personalized learning. 

The Role Of Online Testing

While online testing is not required for personalized learning, it has an emerging role; that is not related to high-stakes testing. Common Core, which has received so much negative political attention, also involves online formative testing. The two consortia that have developed Common Core online summative tests are now developing formative tools to help teachers understand how well students understand the curriculum as they progress through it. Here is a glimpse of their summative assessment work: Partnership For Assessment Of Readiness For College And Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

Getting Started

Good research and planning is the best way to get started. Wisconsin’s School District of Elmbrook started with a regional study of districts implementing personalized learning practices so they could learn from others and build a support network as they progressed. Professional development for all the teachers involved is critical prior to launch. Personalized learning brings new challenges to the teachers, so it is vital that they be well-prepared.

School districts that have successfully transitioned to personalized learning emphasize the cultural change required. Superintendent Dr. David Richards of Fraser Public Schools and Director of Educational Technology & Information Systems Troy Lindner note that they had to educate two generations at once as their district moved to personalized learning. The concepts involved were just as new to the parents of the community as they were to the students. Richards and Lidner started with an iPad one-to-one computing program and held a series of parents’ nights to prepare them as they transitioned away from paper to online content.

Make sure your technology infrastructure can handle the increased digital loading. A solid Wi-Fi network will be needed to support the density and flexibility required for the student devices in each classroom space.

Consider moving to non-traditional grading standards. Competency-based education insures that all students will achieve mastery, so a system with a range of letter grades no longer makes sense. New competency-based grading policies are emerging as alternatives to time-based or letter-based systems.

As with all major program changes, start with a pilot, evaluate and communicate the results, make adjustments, and when ready, roll the full program out across the district.

Advancing The State Of Personalized Learning Through Investment And Research

The need to improve education as reflected in international assessments such as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), as well as persistent achievement gaps among students from different economic circumstances and backgrounds has motivated charitable organizations including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation to dedicate resources to personalized learning. The most recent PISA test ranking of US students puts US math scores below the midpoint of the world’s most-developed countries.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has invested to “identify, strengthen, and refine promising personalized learning practices; determine which are most effective; and encourage innovative educators and other leaders to spread the most successful practices to other classrooms, schools, and districts.” Ongoing grants toward personalized learning by the Gates Foundation focus on these areas: Schools & Systems, Digital Tools & Content, and Building Capacity In Schools & Districts.

At almost $700M, Education-related grants make up two-thirds of the Dell Foundation donations. Their Personalized Learning Blog shares best practices and results from around the country. Grants by the Dell Foundation focus on Performance-Driven Education and Blended Learning.


Personalized learning, which transforms education from a factory model to student-centered education, is demonstrating success with students of all backgrounds and abilities. Getting there requires planning, professional development, technology, infrastructure, and ultimately new collaborative classroom designs. Along the way it demands a new culture within the educational community, one that embraces student responsibility for learning while providing individual paths leading to content mastery of all subjects.

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